I wrote this short story for Writer’s Write, a website for writers based in South Africa, of which I am a member. I am grateful to one of the founders, Mia Botha, for introducing the ’12 Short Stories in 12 Months’ writing challenge. 30 members, including myself, successfully submitted a short story each month, culminating in 12 short stories by the year’s end. Mia provided a word prompt and word count; the rest was up to us.
Thus I thought it fitting to share my last short story for the challenge in 2017 below on my blog. The prompt given was the word Joy and the word count 1500 words.
I swim down, down and look up at the milky light, my pulse beating in my ears. There is nothing else, only silence.
Touching the bottom with both feet, I spring off, kicking furiously. My head and shoulders break the water’s surface. Gasping, I tread water and catch my breath, surveying the expanse of ocean around me.
Smiling now, I lie on my back in a star shape, the current nudging my body. The sky is a broad brushstroke of blue; the turquoise water is gently cradling me.
I look towards the shore, realising that I am out a lot further than I remember. I can just make out Garry back on the beach, wearing his ridiculous towelling hat. I can tell he is on his cell phone even this far away: his head slightly cocked to one side, elbow sticking out. I know the curve of his shoulders. What I don’t know yet is that he is talking to his mistress. He’s looking in my direction. Our 5 year old daughter Sophie is trying out her new kickboard in the shallows, near where he is sitting.
Back on sand, I set myself up next to him on my beach towel, and dry my hair with a spare one.
Who was that on the phone?
Oh, just Peter at work. Tying up some loose ends before he goes on leave too. He’s the only one in the office today due to the Christmas break. I think he’s a bit bored!
Why don’t you turn that thing off? You are officially on leave.
You know it doesn’t work like that with my job, he says, gently squeezing my arm.
He gets up onto his feet, flinging some sand on my towel.
Hungry? I’ll get us a sandwich and a coffee.
Yes please! Salad thanks, with avocado. And something plain for Sophie – you know what she likes.
He takes his phone with him.
I beckon Sophie to come out of the water, thinking, she’s been in there for over an hour. Then laugh at the realisation that she is as obsessed with the ocean as I am.
Garry returns with food and drinks. I question him about how much time he is spending on the phone lately: Surely it’s not healthy. Is work busier than usual? And you seem more distracted these days.
There’s the new deal for the commercial build in Singapore we’re pitching for. It’s just about to close. Business goes on babe, holiday season or not.
I guess so.
Here, drink your coffee before it gets cold, and eat your sandwich before the seagulls see it.
Two nights later when Sophie is in bed, I discover that Garry’s mistress’s name is Joy, which appears on his phone’s screen. It’s vibrating where he left it on the bed. I pick up the phone. I don’t usually take his calls; it’s a reaction. Maybe I don’t want him to miss anything, with the Singapore business deal so close to being finalised (this is what I ask myself later, when I go through the motions like a forensic detective).
Hello? Emily here, Garry’s wife. He’s just taking a shower. Can he call you back?
Whoever Joy is, she hangs up.
I look around me and doubt starts to creep in. Our bedroom feels a foreign place. Not a haven for sharing our fears, secrets and dreams, talking till late at night, and making love, sometimes at one in the afternoon or one in the morning; the special place where Sophie was conceived.
I then think of the other Joy I knew 15 years ago – the franchisee at Donut King where I worked part time during my Uni days: bossy but always with a kind word to say to the itinerants who came in for a cheap coffee and some company. She would keep the day old donuts for them. Word must have got out – soon there were a dozen homeless people sitting round the shop eating and drinking, not talking, with tired out faces. They would stay for hours when the weather was inclement.
And that same period when I encountered a woman washing her underwear in the ladies toilet. Humming to herself as she squeezed the excess water out of the garment and held it delicately with both hands under the hand dryer, moving it left and right for maximum effect, oblivious of the silent queue forming behind her. What hit me then was the care with which she handled her stained clothing, as if it were something precious.
That all seems a long way from this moment when I am starting to feel the bottom of my world has been ripped open and all its contents are spilling out.
While Garry is still in the shower, I move outside onto the balcony. Sitting in the dark, I think back again to my time at Donut King. Joy had to let me go after four months. Turned out that putting homeless people before profits wasn’t her best business decision. Regular customers stopped coming. I couldn’t stand the smell of fried donuts in my hair by then anyway.
I’d met Garry there. He was one of the regulars who didn’t even notice the homeless people, picking up some breakfast before hurrying for the train to Uni. We’d chat. He was so handsome, and funny. Turned out we had friends in common on campus.
We moved into a rental six months later, but could only afford a studio apartment. We didn’t care, as long as we were together. I remember not being able to concentrate in lectures, I was so tired from all the sex and late night talking.
Garry now sidles up to me in the dark. His hair is slick and wet, like a seal’s fur. He smells of cedar and has a towel hitched around his waist.
So who is Joy?
I just picked up your phone. Someone named Joy rang. At least, that’s what I read on the screen.
Garry doesn’t answer. He looks down.
I ask again: Who is she?
Someone at work.
Why is she ringing you at this time of the day?
He shrugs his shoulders.
Is she working on the deal with you?
Yes. His voice is quiet. She came with me to Singapore.
Something invisible starts to grow in the space between us.
There is a long pause.
Have you slept with her?
How many times?
ONLY TWICE?? WHAT THE FUCK IS THAT SUPPOSED TO MEAN?
Look, it’s nothing. It gets a bit lonely, you know? All this travelling. We had a few too many drinks on the trip before the last one. Started talking about our kids. She has two boys, older than Sophie, younger than her cousins. Then next thing, we are in her hotel room.
I make a stop sign with my hand.
I’ve heard enough. I’m going for a walk.
I haven’t decided yet.
I head for the beach. It’s a fair distance from our place. I don’t think much about it, just keep putting one foot in front of the other.
After some time, I realise I am completely lost. I’m three suburbs away from home.
Hey princess where are you off to?
A car slows up beside me.
I don’t look or answer and keep walking.
Come on now, cat got your tongue?
I can smell alcohol on him.
An inner voice says: at least he is on his own, not that I am looking inside the car, not that I am counting heads. It’s just a feeling. But maybe there is a dead body in the back that I can’t see?
I break into a run, grateful for my fitness, the pumping adrenalin carrying me now.
I try not to think of the park I am running past, how he could just stop the car and get out, corral me into its’ shadowy vastness and rape me, stab me, suffocate me.
He plays cat-and-mouse, speeding up, slowing down. Can he smell my fear?
Thankfully a pedestrian way opens up between the next two houses. I run down it.
I knock on a door. I don’t know why I pick this one. Maybe it’s the beautiful planter boxes on the front porch.
A blonde haired woman answers my knock. She sits me down on her front step, beckons one of her pyjama clad children behind her to get me a glass of water. Then she puts her arm around me, croons in my ear. Slow down your breathing, take deeper breaths. It’s ok now. You’re safe.
I blurt: Please ring my husband Garry. His number is 0422 699 740.
She asks the other boy to grab her phone.
Garry, I have Emily with me. You’d better come and get her.
Lying on her front lawn under the soft glow of Christmas lights, I realise that I hadn’t told her my name.